Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times? Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books. There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel becomes the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”. When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtlety of his best work. My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.
What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it. An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author. It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.
I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021. Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.
And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this. At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys. Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist. They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person. Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse. John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour.
“This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is. Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.
Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.
The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.